Sunday, February 28, 2010

After Winter, Spring.

The recent New York Times article, "Depression's Upside," by Jonah Lehrer, explores modern psychology and psychiatry's (slowly) increasing acceptance of the darker sides of the human emotional experience. In the faintest of voices, heard only occasionally above the stadium roar of the status quo, there are those suggesting the possibility that not everything that hurts must be eradicated.

The title of the article, however, is a bit of a misnomer. Depression itself does not have upsides. Periods of depressions are nothing but deaths, some of them more violent than others; indeed, some of them like massacres that seem to insist on coming back to their victims for more and more. In my mind, and as I think the article suggests, it is only what comes after a depression clears that can bring the benefits, and renewal, of life.

To help make the point that world culture is enriched by depressions, the author quotes Keats: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” Similarly, the community of analytic psychology, drawing on the archetypal stories of human history, point to necessary descents into the darkest reaches of our souls to allow rebirth and new life. Persephone's abduction by Hades into the Underworld turned the world into a barren winter through her mother's grief. It was not until Persephone returned to the world above ground that spring and a harvest returned.

Jung and his intellectual descendants, perhaps most vocally James Hillman, have been asserting for 100 years that darkness is an inherent part of life and that its destruction will only hasten our renewal. Not only does common sense suggest that we will not build character and learn from our own life, our own failures and injustices if our pain is easily masked, but it should be plain that our society will not build character either. While not mentioning it directly, the article alludes, in a single patient story, to the tenets of social psychology: by alleviating individual pain, we may be missing considerable social issues that are causing individuals to suffer, therefore destroying the agents of change rather than the illness itself. Women may medicate to tolerate their alcoholic or abusive husbands (as the article cites), when the real solution may be to leave the marriage. On a broader scale, one might see that recreational drugs in the inner cities are medicating the inherent depressions of an unjust life; without the drugs, perhaps broader social change would be possible. Perhaps.

At least in mild depressions, the article cites studies which show high relapse rates for those individuals who treat their depression primarily with medication.
“The high relapse rate suggests that the drugs aren’t really solving anything,” [psychiatrist Andy] Thomson says. “In fact, they seem to be interfering with the solution, so that patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems. We end up having to keep people on the drugs forever. It was as if these people have a bodily infection, and modern psychiatry is just treating their fever.”
But, as Thomson's critics are quick to point out, an occasional mild (or even severe) depression is an entirely different animal from a major depressive disorder (the massacre). As psychological memoirists Kay Redfield Jamison, William Styron, and Elyn Saks have written, medication cannot be discounted or vilified for those individuals who are truly suffering from a disease. Indeed, medication is a critical part of the solution. Diabetes is not equivalent to the occasional spike in blood sugar, and if it is treated as such, people die.

Nonetheless, the trend now has swung so far in the direction of psychiatric prescriptions to palliate psychic pain that we may be stunting our own psychic evolution from killing those pains that we should endure and learn from. As the article concludes, the researchers' "speculation is part of a larger scientific re-evaluation of negative moods, which have long been seen as emotional states to avoid." Thank goodness.

Still, the article cites researchers looking for the evolutionary goal of depression as if consciousness were a biological principle and not an entirely separate aspect of science. One cannot look at the activity of protons as if they were cells, nor at moods and psychic states as if they were equivalent to principles of the biology of the body. Depressions add to culture, build character, shake-up the status quo. Depressions lead revolutions, lead to revolt, lead to transformation and growth, for individuals and societies. Depressions write poems and symphonies and remind us why we are alive. When we come back from the darknesses into the light of life, when we are reborn from death, we see life with new eyes. Without winter, we cannot understand the gift of spring.

I contend, therefore, that the basic research of the principle researchers mentioned in the article is of importance but somewhat flawed. As the article wonders, I do think it's a bit of a "Just So" story that attempts to explain scientifically their, I believe, correct sense that some depressions are not to be destroyed. But there is soul involved in this story. I would suggest not looking for the answer in the brain, though certainly there are answers to be found there, but at us collectively, and at us archetypally, historically. Life, consciousness, culture, transformation, the moral of the human tale, may not be able to be seen until one gets high up over our world and looks at our communities from 35,000 feet. The goal of depression may not be found in a single individual, unless viewed over the course of a life; nor in a single brain, unless viewed in connection with thousands of others. What is the purpose of depression for the course of a single life and for all of us, and what do we lose when our depressions are too easily killed, either by the hand of their hosts when the pain cannot be endured, or by the drugs of their doctors when the pain cannot be rationalized or allowed?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dr. Anita Figueredo, 1916-2010

My grandmother, Dr. Anita Figueredo, pioneering cancer surgeon, mother of nine, devoted wife, grandmother of eleven, beloved family doctor, devout Catholic, friend and colleague of Mother Teresa, advocate of the poor, passed away on Friday night, after a two week illness, with her family around her.

My grandmother's death could not have been more peaceful, and the two weeks prior could not have been more full of love. Her passing was her final gift to her whole family, and her final modeling for me.

The morning after she passed away, two individuals from the mortuary came to take her body; as they were climbing the stairs to her bedroom, it began to rain. It rained for two minutes, a surprise shower that left people outside running for cover. And as her body was leaving her home of nearly 60 years for the last time, a magnificent rainbow appeared just in front of the house. Her gathered family watched in awe, from the balcony and from the lawn, as we knew undoubtedly that my grandmother was sending her love and care to us one last time. Seeing that rainbow, such a rare sight here, linger in the sky at that moment, left even the most skeptical of miracles in remarkable awe.

There is an idea in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that great masters and accomplished practitioners can attain "the rainbow body", an occurrence that includes the spontaneous manifestations of rainbows after their death, indicating the attainment of a certain state of enlightenment. Was this what we were witnessing?

Though Catholic, there is no question that my grandmother was a Bodhisattva. In all ways, she was a one of a kind being, a ray of light to all who knew her and a powerhouse of engaged goodness in the world. Her modeling of grace and kindness, skill and devotion, taught everyone who knew her about love and compassion and the courageous pursuit of truth.

I have to admit that I don't know what I believe about religious ideas in general at the moment, so I can't say that I am certain whether my grandmother entered into the Dzogchen state of non-dual consciousness or immediately found herself in heaven. (I'm inclined to believe both are true.) But regardless of religious philosophy, when seeing that rainbow in the sky, just in front of her home for her family to see, none of us doubted for a second that we were watching her truest essence say goodbye.

We watched as her beautiful form appeared, and then faded away.

I love you, Grandma. Thank you for all your gifts.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"There's courage involved if you want to become truth."

I am still keeping vigil by my grandmother's bedside, so I have little space in my mind these days for ponderings of an intellectual variety, less so to craft a blog post of any interest. Moreover, despite the seeming simplicity of the days, time is passing with incredible speed.

As the days pass, quietly amidst family, all of us patiently caring for my grandmother and preparing for our loss of her, I am thinking, of course, about life and death. I am thinking too about family and love and home, and contemplating my luck in this life and the blessings that I can't even count. There is a great deal I could say on those topics, I'm sure. But instead, for this evening, I will simply post this poem that I rediscovered today. Apropos of nothing, I think it's a beautiful, honest, and direct poem that speaks volumes about life and its sometimes brutal quality. It is a poem about the courage and strength it takes to live an honest and full life.

Not Here
by Rumi

There's courage involved
if you want to become truth

There is a broken-open place
in a lover

Where are those qualities
of bravery and sharp compassion?

What's the use
of old and frozen thought?

I want a howling hurt

This is not a treasury
where gold is stored;
this is for copper.

We alchemists look for talent
that can heat up and change.

Lukewarm won't do.

Halfhearted holding back,
well-enough getting by?

Not here. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Facing Problems

When we are faced with problems, life altering events or catastrophes that make us question life and its purpose, Jung suggests that we are struggling with "our Promethean conquest" (1933, p. 96): the growth of consciousness. In his essay entitled "The Stages of Growth," Jung wrote that problems, and perhaps decisions which feel gut-wrenching and impossible to make, ultimately lead us from pain into the birth of something greater.
Problems thus draw us into an orphaned and isolated state where we are abandoned by nature and are driven to consciousness. There is no other way open to us; we are forced to resort to decisions and solutions where we formerly trusted ourselves to natural happenings. Every problem, therefore, brings the possibility of a widening of consciousness--but also the necessity of saying goodbye to childlike unconsciousness and trust in nature. . . . Every one of us gladly turns away from his problems; if possible, they must not be mentioned, or, better still, their existence is denied. We wish to make our lives simple, certain and smooth--and for that reason problems are tabu. . . .[But] the artful denial of a problem will not produce conviction; on the contrary, a wider and higher consciousness is called for to give us the certainty and clarity we need. (1933, pp. 96-97)
In what I call "the myth of vertical growth" inherent in our culture, we are often captivated by the notion that as we age, life will proceed in a manner of general growth and success and that problems are either avoidable or, when they occur, are only catastrophic impediments. It's a pervasive perspective on life that it is an affair of stair-stepped acheivement from childhood to adulthood, like the path of school where a lower grade naturally moves to a higher one. This view on the path of life might be diagrammed as a line beginning at the corner of the axis and progressing with a steady grade upwards. Vertical growth.

Jung, however, suggested that life is in fact more of a spiral path from birth to death. That we are, in fact, constantly moving towards the center, towards Self, and therefore passing new deaths and new births constantly. Problems in life lead us towards initiations, which lead us towards gestations of new perspectives, new identities, and then a rebirth of new parts of ourselves. We may circle the same problems, the same confusions; problems may not be dramatic drops but turns as we move further inward toward the center. The old adage "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" might apply: whatever doesn't kill you, ultimately births a widening of consciousness, our Promethean task. When problems arise, our work is not simply to "get back on top," but to stay on our path as it will inherently lead back towards rebirth again as we spiral further and further towards the center, the core of ourselves.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Nox Quarta

I searched for this image this morning after my grandmother recounted a dream, one which evoked a remarkably similar feeling. After finding the image, I read the corresponding section of translation in Jung's Red Book for the first time.

The section, entitled Nox quarta -- The Fourth Night -- begins like this:
I hear the roaring of the morning wind, which comes over the mountains. The night is overcome, when all my life was subject to eternal confusion and stretched out between poles of fire.

My soul speaks to me in a bright voice:
"The door should be lifted off its hinges to provide a free passage between here and there, between yes and no, between above and below, between left and right. Airy passages should be built between all opposed things, light smooth streets should lead from one pole to the other. Scales should be set up, whose pointer sways gently. A flame should burn that cannot be blown out by the wind. A stream should flow to its deepest goal. The herds of wild animals should move to their feeding grounds along their old game paths. Life should proceed, from birth to death, from death to birth, unbroken like the path of the sun. Everything should proceed on this path."

Thus speaks my soul. But I toy casually and terribly with myself. Is it day or night? Am I asleep or awake? Am I alive or have I already died?
Is it just a coincidence that my grandmother recounted to us her own journey, reminding me of Jung's image, after the fourth night following her stroke? Now home on Hospice, following the nox quarta after she moved abruptly into what appears to be the final phase of her life, my grandmother described her dream: a knife was in her hand, a big creature, a stomach cut, a battle for truth undertaken.

What sense do we make of her image? What insights can we gain from her journey?

While listening to her whispered story, her family was reminded of (or introduced with surprise to) the archetypal psyche. She told us a story from in-between realms, from the bridge between the conscious world of health care and family, and the unconscious world were mythical battles are fought and won. We can never know what exactly her story and journeys mean, nor interpret them for psychological purposes alone. A story as rich as hers, one that evokes some of the most ancient tales ever told, can neither be reduced to simple "fantasy" nor concrete "psychology." But it is my sense that, like Jung described in the passage that corresponded to his own image of battle, my beautiful grandmother is wondering lately, when her eyes open: "Is it day or night? Am I asleep or awake? Am I alive or have I already died?"

Blessings to my grandmother, one of the most beautiful souls I will ever know, or love. May you battle in your dreams, sort through all that must be sorted through, and find safe passage to wherever we all will journey when our time in these bodies, and on this earth, ends.

Te quiero mucho, abuelita mia. Eres una maravilla.

Friday, February 5, 2010

On my Grandmother, and God.

I held my grandmother's hand yesterday afternoon in what seemed like a moment that might have suddenly been leading towards her death. Despite her age, 93, her vibrant being exudes a much more youthful air. Her frequent, humbled, appreciation to the Lord that she has "no aches or pains" is testament to both her faith, her consistent gratitude of the life she has led, and the surprise it was to all of us yesterday to see her so suddenly ill and frail.

Despite this incredibly shocking and terrifying event, what much of the family's conversation throughout yesterday and into today has turned to is the number of miracles that have surrounded her illness and intervention. The timing of her sudden turn ensured that she was with family and cared for immediately. The time too allowed for her to be greeted at the door of the ER by my uncle, a prominent physician at the hospital, despite the fact that he had only arrived home from conducting surgery in Haiti twelve hours before. The timing of the event also allowed her to be seen by one of the few surgeons in the country who could have saved her life, because he had been hired by the hospital three months ago (recruited for his specialized skill by my aforementioned uncle). Moreover, the man who was my grandmother's life-saving surgeon yesterday, had seen her a couple of months prior, energetically signing books with my aunt, engaging with fans about her life as one of California's first female surgeons. On a wall of the hospital, next to the announcement of his arrival as a member of the hospital staff, is an announcement of the book on my grandmother's life, with a photo of her and the author, my aunt. Throughout the ordeal, of which seemingly the entire family was gathered, we sat comfortably at a table, with just enough chairs for all of us, literally under her name, on the wall in large gold letters -- that room in the hospital, where she and my grandfather had labored as a dedicated surgeon and pediatrician for decades, was dedicated in her honor years ago.

My grandmother, thank goodness, is recovering beautifully. After undergoing surgery, she was smiling and greeting all of us as we poured into the ICU to see her.

It is amazing how such an encounter can remind us all, in small and large ways, about the value of life and the importance of living in the moment. Everything can literally change in an instant, and truly, when you least expect it. These moments remind us that we are alive and remind us of those people around whom we want to live, with whom we want to engage and love, and the simplest beauties of the world. It is not a cliche when you experience it as truth.

Just days before his death, Jung was asked about his notion of God. Raised as a Christian by a pastor father, Jung had a better grasp of the Bible than perhaps some of the most learned Christian scholars today. Yet Jung, after a lifetime of his own studies in religion and spirituality, responded,
To this day, God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse. (Quoted in Ego & Archetype, 1973, p. 101)
Perhaps suggesting the trickster archetype, Jung suggests that God is the reminder that we are alive and, in good times or bad, the reminder to treasure life.

A lifelong Catholic, my grandmother never questions God's work. She does not ask Him for things, nor question His motives when things go poorly. Despite her own difficult trials and her work with some of the world's poorest people, my grandmother does not turn her back on God nor lose faith in Him. As she is found of saying, often when others are expressing bewilderment of uncertainty, quoting her friend Mother Teresa: "God will provide." And for my grandmother, who came from humble beginnings in Spanish Harlem and worked harder than anyone I've ever known, He does seem to do so.

This trust in God, both Jung's and my grandmother's, evokes for others, wisdom and confidence. In their own ways, with their own lexicons, each lived their lives with trust in life and faith in the order of uncertainty. By the grace of God, my grandmother, recovering well, continues to do so.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Insights while Dreaming

Does the above picture make you want to smoke? Yes, I know, Mr. Donald Draper is a particularly evocative individual, so it might be a trick question, but swagger or no swagger, I wonder if seeing someone smoke suggests the desire to smoke in you as well. If you saw a man on the street smoking, would you have any conscious response? Unconscious?

I was not thinking at all about this topic, nor watching Mad Men, last week when I awoke with the memory of a dream in which I had had what seemed like a profound revelation. In the dream, something had occurred to me that I was sure was going to revolutionize everything: Just as society now readily accepts that second hand smoke kills people and states are passing laws to ban smoking in public places, it occurred to me that with the greater understanding of mirror neurons, just seeing someone enjoy a smoke can neurologically provoke a desire to smoke and, therefore, lead to death. I thought, in my dream, that the sight of someone smoking is paramount to the inhaling of second hand smoke, now that we understand the neurological response it evokes in us. Furthermore, it occurred to me (while dreaming), our increasing knowledge of mirror neurons can revolutionize cases against corporations and advertising, with scientific proof of unconscious manipulation that does not require study after study of the effects of advertising.

Now, I am not writing this to make a case for or against smoking. Nor is this a blog about neurology -- despite my interest in it, I am ill-equipped to say much on the topic. This is about dreaming, and the clarity of insight that can come when we are unconscious. My insight, which arrived while I was in a deep sleep and was utterly unrelated to anything I had consciously been contemplating, is actually quite sound. (Perhaps not earth shattering, but certainly it has basis in reality.) But where does such an insight come from? If I was unconscious, if my thinking mind was theoretically in off-mode, what was it that was thinking?

There are endless theories about dreams. Most individuals today still discredit the psychic activity of sleep as amalgamations of daily activity, feelings, and nonsensical images. Without even exploring the vast reaches of dream interpretation (which could certainly be applied to my dream above), one has to question how individuals can wake-up with whole poems composed, dresses designed, or ideas for a new story or book largely developed. We hear these kinds of stories all the time from artists and authors, yet few people seem to then question how these insights are possible while we are unconscious, not engaging with the reverence of psyche nor seeking to understand what is happening in the dream world. If dreams are simply daily residue or wish fulfillment, how do we awake with original insights and ideas?

As Jung wrote,
The view that dreams are merely the imaginary fulfillments of repressed wishes is hopelessly out of date. There are, it is true, dreams which manifestly represent wishes or fears, but what about all the other things? Dreams may contain ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, anticipations, irrational experiences, even telepathic visions, and heaven knows what besides. One thing we ought never to forget: almost half of our life is passed in a more or less unconscious state. The dream is specifically the utterance of the unconscious. Just as the psyche has a diurnal side which we call consciousness, so also it has a nocturnal side: the unconscious psychic activity which we apprehend as dreamlike fantasy. . . . it is highly probable that our dream psyche possesses a wealth of contents and living forms equal to or even greater than those of the conscious mind, which is characterized by concentration, limitation, and exclusion.
(The Essential Jung, p. 176, from The Practical Use of Dream-Analysis).
Have you had insights while dreaming? Do share. (Or. . .are you headed out to have a smoke?)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Jung on Saving the World

I realize it does not go without saying that, as an activist and student of social justice, non-violence, wars and revolutions, my interest in and dedication to Jung's work is not an intellectual divergence, but a natural progression.

Whatever people may know about Jung, be it his contribution to the our lexicon with concepts such as archetypes and complexes, introversion and extroversion, the collective unconscious, and advances in dream interpretation, they may not know that his work was rooted in his belief that advances in the world's path towards peace will only come through the work of each individual, one by one.

For Jung, as for me, psychology is not simply intellectualizing about the human condition, nor is the clinical application intended only to heal psychic wounds. The work, at its best, may be the only work that can help us to understand the insanity of which we are all capable of perpetrating, or unconsciously accepting and signing-on to. We forget that we are like ants, a super-organism in an interconnected human community, capable of destroying ourselves and each other with little effort. It is not only the Hitlers of the world to whom we can point and claim insanity. It is the millions who followed him, in large or small ways, drawn-in psychologically themselves to the cruelty and unconsciousness that he preached. He who thinks he is immune to these movements of viral insanity is one of whom all others should be wary.

As Jung wrote in his autobiography regarding the situation in WWII,
Today we need psychology for reasons that involve our very existence. We stand perplexed and stupefied before the phenomenon of Nazism and Bolshevism because we know nothing about man, or at any rate have only a lopsided and distorted picture of him. If we had self-knowledge, that would not be the case. We stand face to face with the terrible question of evil and do not even know what it is before us, let alone what to pit against it. (1961/1963, p. 331)
The situation is, of course, no less dire today than it was in his time. The work, therefore, is to make our understanding of our own unconsciousness, conscious work.
As Jung wrote in 1958 in The Undiscovered Self,
The spiritual transformation of mankind follows the slow tread of the centuries and cannot be hurried or held up by any rational process of reflection, let alone brought to fruition in one generation. What does lie within our reach, however, is the change in individuals who have, or create for themselves, an opportunity to influence others of like mind. I do not mean by persuading or preaching—I am thinking, rather, of the well-known fact that anyone who has insight into his own actions, and has thus found access to the unconscious, involuntarily exercises an influence on his environment. The deepening and broadening of his consciousness produce. . . .an unintentional influence on the unconscious of others, a sort of unconscious prestige. (par. 583)
Or, as analyst David Hart wrote in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Jung, “it is only in the individual that the growth of consciousness can occur, and thus only there that a promise exists of improving the lot of mankind” (1997, p. 95).